Art,  Christianity,  Culture,  Faith,  Paul Backholer

Post-Impressionism: Christian Belief and Art Explored

“Come aside by yourselves to a deserted place and rest a while” (Mark 6:31)

We live in an unrelenting world of pressure; our calendars are full, schedules are overloaded and stress levels reach new highs. In our busy lives, we can forget to chart something important to God – come aside and rest. Be at peace, be still! We must not allow ourselves to become indefinitely busy, that we cannot hear the still small voice of the Holy Spirit (Luke 14:16-24).

Bathers at Asnières, 1884, by Georges Seurat

If art has a role to speak to us, then Georges Seurat’s Bathers at Asnières, 1884, conveys the importance of following the Lord’s command to rest. The piece sucks the oxygen out of the room in the National Gallery, London. People are drawn to it and its sister, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, 1884-1886, from the Art Institute, Chicago.

Seurat set the canvas on a placid suburban Parisian riverside. There is a sense of calm in the timeless gentle scene, as people are stilled enjoying the shimmering appearance of the water and light. The complex brushstroke techniques create a haze on the edge of the trees and washed-out colour on the bridges, with the factory far into the background, representing work. This is a day to rest, forget the labour of the week.

Georges Seurat, known today as a Post-Impressionist, mastered pointillism, the systematic use of tiny dots of colour.

The Post-Impressionist movement developed independently in the late 1880s, as a group of French painters transcended optical impressions, concentrating on themes of deeper symbolism for expressing emotion. They followed diverse stylist paths to express deeper meaning with light, colour and brush strokes. Famous Post-Impressionists include Paul Gauguin (1848-1903), Georges Seurat (1859-1891), Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890), and Paul Cézanne (1839-1906).

Paul Gauguin explored Christian themes to include The Adoration of the Magi and The Annunciation with a distinctly Polynesian guise. Christ belongs to all peoples, tribes and nations. Gauguin describes his work as, “An angel with yellow wings points out Mary and Jesus, both Tahitians, to two Tahitian women.”  

Post-Impressionism emphasises the emotional, spiritual, structural and symbolic elements which the movement felt were void in Impressionism. Georges Seurat’s Bathers at Asnières, speaks of a moment of calm in the sea of life; we all need this moment. It’s in the stillness we de-stress and our spirit becomes open to hearing the voice of the Spirit of God.

My soul, wait silently for God alone, for my hope is from Him

– Psalm 62:5

Whilst researching my book How Christianity Made the Modern World, I investigated Christianity and art for a chapter and toured many galleries. I watched non-believers stand before the paintings of Christ and hoped they pondered their eternal soul. It is a witness I thank God for.

By Paul Backholer. Find out about Paul’s books here.